Mea Maxima CulpaMea Maxima Culpa

Interview with Alex Gibney

  • Sexual abuse in the clergy is not a new subject. What initially attracted you to it?

  • I had read a story in The New York Times about a particularly horrific abuse case involving some two hundred deaf boys who had been abused by a priest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What made the story stand out for me were the documents that were revealed as part of the investigation which led straight to the Vatican - not only to the Vatican, but to Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. That seemed to me a story that hadn't been told yet. And to understand the story and see its connections all the way to the top-that really intrigued me.

    The other thing that intrigued me were the heroes at the center of the story, the deaf men. The film is called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Obviously the silence refers to the silence of the church in the face of these crimes. But it also refers to the silence of these deaf men, these people who somehow managed to have their voices heard, even though they couldn't be understood by most hearing people. That seemed to me miraculous: amidst all of this darkness, there was a ray of light. Or better, in the midst of this ghastly clerical silence, there was a voice for justice.

  • What kind of change have you seen in the church's policies on sexual abuse since these scandals have erupted?

  • Judging from statements from the Vatican, it's as if there has barely been a sex abuse crisis. They really haven't reckoned with it. Even worse, they keep saying it's over, and then more dimensions of the cover-up are revealed.  I mean, Pope Benedict has apologized, but in a way that seems so vague and indistinct and  didn't at all reckon with the church's role in covering up these crimes. On the other hand, if you look at the United States, the American  bishops have made substantive changes - out of necessity. Not only priests but bishops are being prosecuted - and not just for committing crimes, but for covering them up. Civil society has taken hold. The idea that the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland can speak of the "rape and torture of children" at the hands of the Catholic Church - that's powerful stuff. As a result, people are not going to church - not because they have lost their faith in God but because they've lost their faith in  the man-made institution of the church. All over the world people are getting so angry at the church's intransigence that they're demanding a change, and are voting with their feet. The Vatican hasn't changed, but the church is changing around it.

  • Where are the film subjects now? Has the film had a positive impact on their lives?

  • I think it has. I think it's empowered them. Their mission now is to protect children. And so they're speaking out, even if it means having to expose embarrassing details about their own past. They want to see justice done. That's one of the things I wanted to celebrate was the heroic persistence of these deaf men in the face of so much silence from the church. And they really did make a difference.

  • What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

  • I was raised Catholic. And I do hope that what Catholics take away from it is an understanding of the corruption of the hierarchy, which is very different than any kind of attack on the faith. I think what this film does is show what happens to institutions when they become so convinced of their own goodness that they imagine that they can do no wrong; because child abusers don't just exist in the Catholic Church. What all these institutions seem to have in common is the concept that reputation of the institution outweighs even the damage that it does to small children. In the film we refer to a police phrase, "noble cause corruption," which is the idea that crimes committed by members of an institution are unimaginable because the institution itself is so inherently good. Yet that unyielding sense of infallibility in the face of crimes is the very thing that's corrupting the institution! It's that mantle of respectability that we must always be cautious of. The church shouldn't be able to cover up crimes in order to protect some phony notion of respectability. There are no black hats, there are no white hats. And bad apples are not what we should be looking for. What we should be looking for is to hold institutions to account. And that means that if the Catholic Church - or any other institution - wants a great reputation, they have to earn it, day after day.